Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Art Class: The Phillips Collection

The Phillips Collection is like a friend you admire and are slightly intimidated by.  How is it that she manages to be both erudite and gracious? So put-together even in adverse circumstances? Has she noticed yet that you're not nearly cool enough for her? Even if she has, she's far too classy to ever let you know it.*

The Sun and the Moon, Elizabeth Murray
A fire forced the closing of the Phillips House, one third of the three-building complex that takes up most of the 2100 block of Q. Still, there's plenty left to see while they complete repairs. In large open rooms suited for displaying large open work, some of the modern installations really stand out.Jae Ko's great decaying quillwork Force of Nature is a series of slumped, stacked rolls of kraft paper covering the walls of one room. I want to see Elizabeth Murray's jazzy, energetic The Sun and the Moon (shown) outside a Metro station.** They also have - or almost have - one of my favorite pieces of art, for which I made a beeline as soon as I entered.

In 1941 Jacob Lawrence completed his 60-painting epic "The Migration of the Negro", telling the story of the great 1930s migration from rural South to urban North. In form it resembles nothing so much as storyboards; the addition of terse, understated captions anticipates the comic book as a serious art form. In a gold medal at the Missing the Point Olympics, the Phillips got the odd-numbered paintings and the Museum of Modern Art got the even-numbered ones. What Solomon proposed this division?! Maybe the same one who displayed the paintings in a loose grid on the wall rather than in a linear progression down a hallway.

After Lawrence, however, I have no quarrel with the displays in the Phillips - indeed, the display philosophy is a major strength. Art in the museum is ordered not chronologically, but as a series of "conversations". The Phillips doesn't just display its art, it hosts it. Quite literally in this case - a visiting collection from Oberlin was on display, integrated into the Phillips' own arrangement. Organization sometimes seemed to be by visual resemblance, with an emphasis on continuity. "Oh, Still Life with Newspaper, you have to meet The Glass of Absinthe, he's also an example of analytic cubism and he's really interested in household objects."

The Syrian Bull, Mark Rothko
The exhibition notes are perfectly calibrated as well, neither too wordy nor too brief, and including the occasional input from the artists themselves "No possible set of notes can explain our paintings," protest Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in a perhaps unconscious irony.  "It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way - not his way."  I was right there with you, guys, until you started in with the bit where your work "must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decorationpictures for over the mantle; pictures of the American scene; social pictures; purity in art; prize-winning potboilers; the National Academy; the Whitney Academy; the Corn Belt Academy; buckeyes; trite tripe; etc." Like it or not, fellows, your work depends on those who are spiritually attuned to interior decorating. Quit insulting your host when you're at a party, it's bad form.

The conversations go on.  A hallway is devoted to moonlit scenes. A room of self-portraits (in my notes it's The Room of Dour Faces) features artists staring out at each other from their canvases. Other arrangements are less intuitive.  The large room dominated by St Sebastian Tended by Irene (which is, incidentally, the most evocative depiction of semi-consciousness I've ever seen) includes other nudes, bodies supporting other bodies - and also Manet's Spanish Ballet.  The juxtaposition is a bit unsettling. The juxtaposition of Ossorio's Excelsior and the anonymous "The Fountain of Life", however, is made of awesome: two hallucinatory altarpieces, one from the 60s, one from the 16th century. 

The impressionist rooms are an education. What I wouldn't give to see Van Gogh at work, to watch the process as his paintings got that way! But again, when the artists are allowed to speak for themselves, they show a regrettable lack of awareness of the system that makes their works possible. Monet criticizes the Louvre for being "a dull schoolroom whose doors are open to any dauber." Respectfully, sir -- on behalf of all daubers who might seek improvement -- shove it up your je-ne-sais-quoi.***

One other special exhibition is on display at the moment: TruthBeauty, an examination of the birth of art photography. (I mean photography as art, not photography of art - which I am sure is another discipline that Rothko would unjustly scorn.) I find photos hard to focus on as art unless - and this is odd - they are blown up to at least a yard long. Otherwise I start to read the entire room, with its grey squares on the wall, as a newspaper. This is quite unjust to the photographers, and once I realized I was doing it I made an effort to stop.  Nonetheless, the photos that drew my attention were almost universally the largest ones, not the best ones. I'm sorry, The Phillips! This is one of the things that makes me not classy enough for you.

Still, classy or not, I will be back as often as I can, and maybe, just to spite Monet, I'll bring a sketchbook.

*Yes, this museum seemed distinctly feminine to me. Odd, since it represents the collection of a guy.
**This is a compliment.  The fact that I give compliments like this may explain why I am not an art critic...
***This brilliantly articulate rebuttal (my original was terser and not printable on a family blog) is thanks to friend and literary critic at kagenjoujo.

Place: The Phillips Collection
Pros: Gracious atmosphere and brilliant arrangement of art
Definitely Check Out: Oh what the heck, check out the Boating Party, it really is all that and a bag of chips.
Rating: 8/10 smiling gallery attendants

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